Academic journal article African American Review

The Rhetoric of Quilts: Creating Identity in African-American Children's Literature

Academic journal article African American Review

The Rhetoric of Quilts: Creating Identity in African-American Children's Literature

Article excerpt

Learning to read and write are two of the greatest accomplishments in the life of a child. The ability to create language, make meaning, and transform reality by the use of symbols provides children creative opportunities to engage the world. Language becomes the vehicle for children to locate their place in the world and to understand the social and political implications of their society. Literacy is not simply learning how to read words but, more importantly, how to "read the world" (Freire and Macedo 7). Providing children a space to locate themselves in history makes them present as agents in the struggle for self-definition and cultural identity. Their learning, then, becomes a pedagogy of empowerment and liberation.

African-American literary works have been inspired by quilt-making (Benberry 79), and several African-American women authors of children's literature have embraced this notion of reading the world by employing the quilt tradition in their stories. The implication that quilting reveals a continuum of African-American women's experience and creative expression is a recurrent theme in such works as Deborah Hopkinson's Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, Faith Ringgold's Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky, Courtni C. Wright's Journey to Freedom, Valerie Flournoy's The Patchwork Quilt, Patricia McKissack's Mirandy and Brother Wind, and Bettye Stroud's Down Home at Miss Dessa's. These authors present the quilt in ways which conceptualize identity and redefine history, setting in place a dialectical tension between traditional learning and critical literacy.

While traditional learning encourages the dominant discourse of cultural hegemony, critical literacy redefines the parameters of knowledge and power by making a space for oppressed voices to name their experience, reclaim their history, and transform their future. The stories of Hopkinson, Ringgold, Wright, Flournoy, McKissack, and Stroud contribute to literacy by advancing the tradition of the quilt as a form of resistance to structures of dominance and control. Working within the historical context of Black culture, these six authors provide a space for teaching children the history of struggle and the importance of family relationships. Houston Baker and Charlotte Pierce-Baker point out that "the patchwork quilt ... opens a fascinating interpretive window on vernacular dimensions of lived, creative experience in the United States. Quilts, in their patched and many-colored glory offer not a counter to tradition, but, in fact, an instance of the only legitimate tradition of 'the people' that exists" (714). Baker and Pierce-Baker underscore the transformative role of the quilt. Its symbolic nature transforms children into a community of readers of the world and of culture by illuminating Black experience in America through rhetorical art.

It is therefore not only useful but insightful to examine how African-American women writers incorporate the quilt tradition in children's stories and reveal the rhetorical nature of Black women's ability to transcend adversity. Rhetoric points to the legacy of a people struggling for symbols of expression through pieces of cloth and a myriad of colors. The quilt uncovers the choice of symbols Black women used within their community to create a shared, common meaning of self and the world. Thus, the quilt serves as a vehicle for re-inventing the symbolic expression of identity and freedom.

The heritage of motherhood of African-American women is illuminated by the cultural artifact of the quilt (Benberry 19; hooks 116; Wahlman and Scully 80). The quilt represents, on one hand, the African tradition of folk art and embroidery and, on the other, a political symbol of resistance by Black women to the oppression in America of being both Black and female. The Negro spiritual "I Ain't No Ways Tired" suggests one of the major characteristics of Black women's history - survival. Despite the dualities of racism and sexism, field and domestic labor, and the double duty of motherhood for both white and black children, African-American women developed methods for surviving. …

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